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Reviews: Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 - Bélanger , Nézet-Séguin

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Reviews: 3

Review by terence April 22, 2006 (12 of 13 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is a very fine recording, although I think it's perhaps not quite the 10/10 rating that Classics Today give it. The Atma engineers do a generally splendid job of reconciling the very big, resonant acoustic of Quebec's Basilique de l'Oratoire St-Joseph du Mont-Royal with the need to bring orchestra detail into focus - you do feel you are part of a large performing area, yet there's a pleasing amount of instrumental definition and differentiation between sections.

The organ is very much integrated with the orchestral textures, and doesn't stand out as a "soloist" the way it does in some other recordings. This may be a tad disappointing to some - the big entry at the beginning of the finale isn't specially momentous, but kept more in the context of the development of the piece as a whole.

And conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's view of the work is indeed a very thoughtful, musical one. He knows that it's fatal to splurge out Saint-Saëns as though he's some kind of particularly refulgent late 19th century Romantic, and he highlights instead the graceful neo-classicism of much of the music. Textures are often floaty, balletic, more proto-Debussyian than neo-Austro-Germanic.

I did wonder whether this approach was sometimes taken a bit TOO far. The opening movement is certainly marked Allegro MODERATO, but the tempo here struck me as just a touch too deliberate. I wonder was Nézet-Séguin to some extent looking after the orchestra? I'm not saying the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal aren't a fine group of musicians, because they are. But they're not the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, let alone the roaring Berlin Philharmonic on James Levine's high-adrenaline DG recording (RBCD only).

Put it this way - while the symphony is very well and in many places very sensitively played (try the winsomely delicate string playing in the Poco Adagio), the orchestra hasn't quite got the corporate executive confidence to really nail key moments in the argument. The impression is ultimately a little too CAREFUL to be fully convincing.

It would be interesting to know whether this also had something to do with the recording venue - my guess is that it may not have been ideal for different sections of the orchestra trying to hear one another, and trying hard to do so introduces an element of caution that I think you can hear on the record. Some of the tutti entries in the opening movement are, for example, just a shade behind the beat the conductor is setting.

My personal impressions notwithstanding, this IS very much a CD to be welcomed. Nézet-Séguin's overall view of the piece is excellent, and the MC sound is warm and suffusing. It'll take a VERY good MC alternative to supplant it.

NOTE - I needed a couple of notches higher on volume than usual to really get this recording "working". You may find the same. Happy listening!

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Review by jmvilleneuve June 3, 2006 (5 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
First I would like to say that I discussed this recording (though e-mails) with Terence and that I agree with him on everything. My reaction to the same issues was more visceral, in particular the weakness of the organ (compare to what I would like) in the finale makes me dislike the whole Saint-Saens interpretation.

You can read a complete review on my website at:

But here I just want to add the following. Not even mentionned on the front cover of this SACD is the fact that it contains 3 additional tracks of virtuosic solo organ music played by Philippe Bélanger.

The organ sounds in exceptionally refined rich and complex. The image is fantastic and absolutely gigantic. At the front of the image there is a very good impression of the positioning of the various stops (often you can hear the different of heights between the different pipes).

The image gives a very good impression of the hugeness of the recording venue. In multi-channel there is a physical feel to the echo effects. Another astonishing characteristic of the recordings is that each notes of the organ remains very clear even in the fastest passages (which was not the case in the Saint-Saëns).

It is very strange that the sound take of the organ would be so fantastic in the 3 solo tracks and so weak in the 3rd Symphony with organ. Obviously a completely different recording set-up was used for the solo pieces.

But these 3 tracks are absolutely fantastic and are the best sound take of an organ I have ever heard (including the SONOMA brass and organ recording). So although I have major issues with the Saint-Saëns
I have to highly recommend this recording. I wish ATMA will produce some solo organ SACDs because Philippe Bélanger deserves it (and us multi-channel audiophile too!)

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Review by Oakland July 5, 2007 (7 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
I recently completed listening to the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3 (Organ) performed by the Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal with Nezet-Seguin conducting and Philippe Belanger on the organ. I usually don’t bother posting comments about music I don’t recommend. It takes far more effort than writing about something that moves me. But the Saint Saens is a favorite of mine and I also believe that it is an important draw for classical music repertoire generally and for the SACD format, so I decided to say something. The many virtues of this recording and performance notwithstanding that I found this disc to be a huge disappointment. The disc does include a generous coupling of surprise nuggets for organ devotees.

I found the performance, per se, to be pretty good, actually very good. I found the interpretation to be more to my liking, overall, than Eschenbach’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra that I enjoy very much albeit with some heedful caveats. (To more fully understand my conclusion on the Nezet-Seguin rendition please see my comments on the Eschenbach at: /showreviews/4356#4406) I listened to both discs consecutively.

From an interpretive standpoint I didn’t find that much to chose from between the two in Sections 1 and 4 that I will mention here. But in Sections 2 (Poco adagio) and 3 (Allegro moderato-Presto) the interpretations are worlds apart with Nezet-Seguin really nailing it, at least compared to Eschenbach in both. For example, in the 2nd Section Nezet-Seguin more successfully draws out the inner beauty of the music in a French Impressionistic way. It seems penetratingly insightful and nurturing in a way that Eschenbach accomplished, but to a lesser degree. With Nezet-Seguin you go away thinking, “I didn’t realize Saint Saens had so much to say”. And all along the organ is muscular but restrained as if to be signaling “just wait until the 4th Section when I bust through these shackles”. In recent weeks I have come to realize that Eschenbach really drags out this Section, almost a full minute longer than practically any other performance I own and loses a bit in the translation, (but not fatally so).

But I found the Achilles hill of Eschenbach to be the 3rd Section and I have never really gotten past that, try as I might. Eschenbach takes a “Casey Jones at the throttle” approach and scurries through the section. While Nezet-Seguin doesn’t make any new discoveries (oh listen to me, what do I know), he does the 3rd Section “correctly” and satisfyingly, in my book.

So far it looks like Nezet-Seguin is ahead on points, far ahead. It’s his game to lose. All he has to do is hit the “gimme” shot. Keep in mind as important as the organ is in the 4th section the level of virtuosity is not especially high. I mean we are not talking about a series of intricate staccato passages that one encounters with Bach or Widor. We are talking about the organists pulling the stops and letting her rip. That is an over exaggeration, but you get the point. Well, somebody threw up (no pun intended) a soft brick. The “king of instruments” fell completely flat.

With every version of the Saint Saens that I own and especially since I heard it live I have always had this undefined but always heightened anticipation of the 4th Section where I literally brace myself for one of the truly great finale’s in all of orchestral music. But this time the anticipation was completely unfulfilled; the 4th Section fizzled from the first chord of the organ and never recovered. The power was short-circuited; there was no sense of room barometric change, real or imagined. Nothin’. This is a real double bogey because if you don’t get the organ right in the Organ Symphony you take a double hit for both performance and sound.

Plain and simple the organ wimped out. It is extremely weak; not just a “little weak”, it is pitiably weak; both with respect to loudness *and* low end grunt. And for sure out of the probably dozen Organ Symphonies I own the Nezet-Seguin is by far the weakest with respect to "execution" of the 4th Section. This is unpardonable. It really doesn’t matter to me why it wimped out because for me the performance failed the litmus test that calls for the “king of instruments”, in this Section, in this symphony, to assert itself in a most dominant and triumphant way; almost unfettered but still a team player within the context of the symphony.

But I will take a couple of guesses. Perhaps Nezet-Seguin directed the organist, Philippe Bélanger, to “pipe down” and erred on the conservative side in an attempt to achieve the optimum balance with the orchestra. This, of course, is a legitimate concern that must be addressed anytime the organ is performed in concert, especially at speed, with any other instruments or voices to to counteract the differences of pitch, timbre, and dynamics presented by the organ. Or this was an unfortunate engineering misjudgment brought about for the same concerns of balance. Or the results achieved were exactly what the conductor and engineers hoped for. Notice, I am not laying blame with the organist, even though this is, too, possible, but unlikely, in my opinion, for several key reasons, one of these being how Philippe Belanger acquits himself with the filler compositions on this disc. See below.

One can argue that this is a “symphony” and not a “concerto” and that in the confines of a symphony the organ is just another instrument to be given equal treatment. Well, I doubt if anyone familiar with the symphony, especially those who have heard it live would make that argument and if they did, I would point out that that is what the 2nd section accomplishes. But in this recording, in the 4th section the organist is “just one of the boys”. There is no excuse that where you least expect it the cellos are actually more audible.

Then, what was, initially, out of a fleeting curiosity, I decided to pull out my Telarc Ormandy/Philly LP from 1980. While my, new turntable/phono stage/cartridge set up is not quite ready for prime time, it has been coming along quite nicely so I said what the heck. (And this is why my comments continue on and don’t stop here). I initially planned to play excerpts, but that is even tougher to do with LP than with my SACD player (and fraught with danger of a dropped tone arm). Besides I began to get intrigued the more I listened. Don’t get overly excited vinyl lovers; my intrigue was more for the performance than for the sound, although there is no denying that the sound was quite nice indeed.

I’ll just say that the Ormandy interpretation/performance is my favorite among the three versions compared here. Ormandy, while not at all conservative, in my opinion, doesn’t make any of the blunders or near blunders anywhere along the line that help pull down Eschenbach and that is fatal to Nezet-Seguin and all the while with great sound (except for distortion in the finale) and musicianship. Eschenbach and Nezet-Seguin also have great and very good musicianship respectively, although the Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal seemed to be a wee bit stilted in places.

I found the recording engineering of the Eshenbach/Philadelphia to be near top tier in many aspects, especially considering the organ/orchestra balance issues. The depth of the front to rear depth orchestra is especially noteworthy with Eshenbach/Philadelphia, superior to the 1980 Telarc, but not superior to Telarc’s modern efforts. The Nezet-Seguin/Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal recording is good, but not great. It clearly does not compare to the other two in front to back depth and layering of orchestral groupings.

With regard to recording accuracy, I found the 4th Section of the Telarc to be a double-edged sword. The organ is more like what I remember a powerful organ to sound like, but the orchestral slam, especially the percussion and trombones, have a garish intrusion, that is far more pronounced that I am used to live. The low end of the Telarc is downright wicked. And even though it comes across as undefined and even if the dynamics may be closer to “real” it is still a poor facsimile because it is out of proportion. (I have expressed on several occasions, and it is widely known, that Telarc’s bass was often far out of proportion to the rest of the orchestra on many of its recordings during this early digital era). And while my current system is far better equipped to deal with these resounding blows than my systems of yesteryears, the low end, particularly in the last minute/seconds of the finale, still tends to disfigure the music Hip Hop style on mine and every other system on which I have heard it. (The LP or the CD has been test disc staples of mine when auditioning systems over the years). But truth be told, I’m no purist and sometimes you throw accuracy out of the window in favor of frantic excitement. That is, there is enough red meat here to feed a pride of lions for a week. That’s what the Telarc LP (and CD-I do not have the SACD) offers in spades.

On the Nezet-Seguin/Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal disc there are three superbly performed organ solos that are not even listed on the front cover and vindicates Belanger as not being the wimp that one might otherwise conclude based on how the organ is portrayed in the Saint Saens. The three compositions, that include Louis Vierne, Charles-Marie Widor, and one other composer show without question, that if his wings are not clipped Belanger is quite capable of pulling all the stops while artistically keeping the instrument under securely firm reign. Unfortunately, his virtuosity with these compositions that are also wonderfully recorded is not nearly enough to salvage this disc, whose fortunes are firmly hitched to the Saint Saens Organ Symphony.

Robert C. Lang

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